These two poems frame the wilderness experience deal with Israel’s survival. At the sea, it is a hymn of thanksgiving — the physical existence of the nation now secure. At the borders of the Promised Land, Moses sings a hymn of hope to a people that will prevail in spirit as well as in body.
Moses’ words instruct, and give hope; Moses hopes to reassure that just as God historically has come through for them, so will God continue to show love and care for Israel. But do the people hear Moses’ words?
“Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; let the earth listen to the words I utter!” (Deuteronomy 32:1). Thus begins Moses’ discourse to the people. He calls the heavens to “give ear” or “hear” (haazinu) and then calls upon the earth to “listen” (tishma). Although “hearing” and “listening” seem to be synonymous, there are slight differences in their meaning. Haazinu refers to the physical act of hearing, while tishma infers listening with understanding of what one hears.
Is there really a difference between the two verbs — to hear and to listen? Writes Rabbi Shana Goldstein: “Inasmuch as there is a difference between vision and sight, there are distinctions between hearing and listening.
Goldstein continues: “Many of us have the ability to hear, but few of us have taken time to learn how to listen. We are ‘hard of listening’ rather than ‘hard of hearing.’ Often, as soon as someone else begins to speak, we begin preparing a response. We are not listening to understand, just to reply.” In other words, we hear but don’t really listen. No wonder Moses felt the need to admonish us to both “give ear” and to “listen!”
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; let the earth listen to the words I utter! Moses begins his poem by urging us to hear and to listen... It takes practice to learn to listen and not just to hear; it takes effort to pay attention, to understand, and to take what we hear to heart. But it is well worth the effort.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)